Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz is insisting that confidential documents sought by Congress related to the prosecution of the late Internet activist Aaron Swartz be redacted to protect people identified in them from harassment and threats.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann, who was prosecuting Swartz before the activist’s suicide on Jan. 11, has had his Facebook page hacked and his personal contact information distributed, according to a brief filed last Friday in federal court in Massachusetts by Ortiz’s office.
Heymann also received a postcard sent to his home with a photo of Ortiz on one side and a photo of a “guillotine with a disembodied head” that appears to be that of the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose computers Swartz used to make massive authorized downloads of academic documents from a database called JSTOR.
Heymann’s father, Philip Heymann – who served as Deputy Attorney General during the Bill Clinton administration – also received a similar postcard, although he has nothing to do with the case, prosecutors wrote.
“This postcard is even more pointed in its message: the disembodied head pictured on the guillotine is Professor Heymann’s,” the brief said.
These examples were offered by prosecutors as a cautionary tale of what could happen to other people linked to the case through the disclosure of highly confidential discovery material provided by the U.S. to Swartz’s lawyers last year under a protective order.
Swartz’s family and friends have accused Ortiz and Heymann of threatening Swartz with up to 35 years in prison if he did not agree to plead guilty in their probe of his unauthorized download of the JSTOR documents. Although prosecutors said Swartz in reality would have faced between three and six months in prison under the terms of any plea agreement, Swartz supporters blame prosecutors for his suicide.
In campaigning for an “open” Internet with few restrictions on the flow of information, Swartz commanded an almost cult-like following. Those supporters have made their anger with the government known through outreach to Congress – House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is investigating the matter — and such symbolic gestures as generating the necessary 25,000 signatures to force the White House to respond to a petition demanding scrutiny of Ortiz and the “firing” of Heymann.
The current issue concerns a request from Congress that Swartz’s former lawyers hand over so-called discovery material, work product that each party in a dispute is required to provide the other for purposes of preparing their arguments for trial.
Congressional investigators asked Swartz’s former lawyers at Keker & Van Nest LLP in California to provide the material. On Feb. 7, 2013, Michael J. Pineault, identifying himself as counsel for the estate of Swartz, contacted the Massachusetts prosecutors and asked they agree to release of the documents and to modify a court order that protected their release.
The U.S. agreed to release the documents under the condition that the names of individuals in them be redacted. Individuals could agree to include their unredacted names in the documents, the government wrote in the brief, “but the United States would not agree to disclosure of their names without their consent.”
However, the lawyer for Swartz’s estate “asserted that the disclosure of the names was necessary because one issue he and his client were focused on, along with Congress and the press, was the role and conduct of the ‘institutional players,’” the government wrote in the brief.
Although Heymann and three other Assistant U.S. Attorneys have agreed to allow their names to go unredacted in the documents, the government said other people involved “did not voluntarily inject themselves into this matter” but were “drawn in simply because they did their jobs.”
In addition to the guillotine postcards to the Heymanns, Ortiz’s home has been targeted by protesters, the government said.